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Nearly 25 years after the gruesome killing of close to one million Rwandans and displacement of nearly two million Rwandans, you would hardly know walking down the streets of Kigali that such a terrible tragedy occurred in the country’s recent history. Today, Rwanda is a well-organized, safe, and clean country – in fact beating out most large cities around the world, including my hometown of Chicago, on the safety and cleanliness scales. Indeed, Rwanda is one of the safest countries in Africa and shows its support for the environment in ways that are unheard of throughout much of the world, like banning plastic bags. It also has a strong infrastructure system compared to many of its neighbors, with paved roads throughout the capital and even some larger paved roads running across the country, which makes Rwanda an excellent country to explore by car. If you want the freedom of being able to explore Rwanda on your own time, then you’ll want to read on to learn everything you need to know about road tripping Rwanda with Self Drive Rwanda, my favorite car rental company in Rwanda.
Renting a Car With Self Drive Rwanda
The first thing you should know about renting a car in Rwanda is that while there are many paved roads throughout the country, there are also many unpaved roads. You will inevitably find yourself off-roading at one point or another, and with the lure of multiple safari options so close to the capital of Kigali, you’ll want a sturdy 4×4 to get you safely through all your adventures.
I rented a Toyota RAV4 through Self Drive Rwanda, and after driving that around Rwanda for almost a week, including on a self-guided safari to Akagera National Park, I am so impressed by the quality and sturdiness of the car that I am almost tempted to buy one for myself back home. My mom and I put that car through the ringer as we navigated through potholes in the middle of a forest during a rainstorm and “back roads” Google Maps took us down that were very clearly not made for cars, and our Toyota RAV4 held strong through all of that.
With so many car rental companies in Kigali all offering seemingly identical vehicles, it was at first confusing and a bit overwhelming for us to choose one company. After sifting through pages of reviews of different companies, I gathered that many car rental companies in Rwanda do not maintain the quality of their cars. It’s not unusual to find yourself with a rental car without A/C or with more serious issues that may leave you stranded on the side of the road. Thus, quality is what led us to ultimately choose Self Drive Rwanda, and we are so glad we did.
Picking Up and Dropping Off Your Car in Kigali
Chances are if you’re visiting Rwanda, your first stop will be Kigali, the capital. One thing I love about Self Drive Rwanda that I have never before experienced with any other car rental company is that they will actually send someone to pick you up at the Kigali airport and drive you to your hotel, where you can complete all your paperwork. The company will then send that same person back to pick up the car from you at your hotel at the end of your rental.
Driving in Rwanda
Be ready to drive on a variety of terrains in Rwanda
You’ll experience every type of terrain while driving in Rwanda – from very nicely paved roads with clearly delineated lane markers to paved roads without clearly delineated lane markers to cobblestone streets to straight up dirt roads. Most of the main roads across the country are paved, and most roads you find in Kigali will be paved as well, but venture out into the countryside a bit or even onto some smaller streets inside the city of Kigali and you’ll find yourself on red dirt roads, some littered with potholes. It’s nothing to worry about as long as you have a sturdy car, so just take it all in and enjoy the experience that locals refer to as an “African massage.”
If you have a self-guided safari on your agenda for your time in Rwanda, for example to Akagera National Park, you should definitely be prepared to drive more on dirt roads. If you’re visiting Rwanda during rainy season, be prepared for many of those potholes to fill up with water. When we drove ourselves through Akagera National Park on a self-guided safari, we actually got caught in the middle of a rainstorm while searching for elephants, and we were so glad we had a reliable SUV from Self Drive Rwanda to get us through the mud roads and puddles of water that had formed in the potholes along the road. That’s why, again, it is so important to find a reliable rental car company to rent your vehicle through, and it’s also important to invest in a larger vehicle (preferably 4 wheel drive) to ensure that you’ll be safe even when encountering unexpected terrains and weather.
Do not drive at night in Rwanda
When we first arrived in Kigali, we were told by our host at Self Drive Rwanda that we were not permitted to drive after dark. Although we were confused about this at first, we quickly realized the rationale behind this rule when we got a bit lost on our way back from Akagera National Park to Kigali and ended up driving in the dark for the last 15 minutes or so of our journey. First of all, there are very few street lights in Rwanda outside of Kigali, and everyone drives with their high beams on at night, which is very blinding and dangerous if you’re not use to that. Secondly, if you’re out in the countryside on dirt roads with lots of potholes, you’ll have a hard time seeing road conditions in the dark, which, again, could be very dangerous. In general, to remain safe and abide by your rental car company’s instructions, try to plan ahead, give yourself some extra time to get from point A to point B, and avoid driving in the dark.
Don’t always trust Google Maps
When I drive in the U.S. (or really anywhere around the world), I rely 100% on my handy Google Maps app for directions. The problem I encountered in Rwanda is that Google Maps doesn’t always recognize an undriveable pothole-ridden dirt road turning down the side of a mountain from a smooth, paved road that’s comfortable and safe to drive on. So, unless you are interested in sacrificing your life for the thrill of driving down a cliff, I would recommend staying on the main roads, even when Google Maps is trying to redirect you on a “faster” route through smaller roads. This happened to us (again as we were driving back from Akagera National Park) and we ended up adding one hour onto our route time and many small heart attacks all because we wanted to shave off 5 minutes by going down the “fastest” route Google Maps laid out for us.
Be prepared for traffic in Kigali – but everyone is very nice
If you plan to drive around in Kigali, be prepared for traffic. There are many roundabouts in the city, but there are no rules for entering and exiting the roundabout. While you might think that a free-for-all roundabout situation in high traffic is a recipe for disaster, it actually is a lot smoother and safer of a process than you would imagine. The drivers in Rwanda are all very nice and will let you go when it looks to be most convenient for you to go rather than for them to push through, so you will get your turn, and you will make it through safely. Just go with the flow, observe what everyone else is doing, and follow in their footsteps.
Overall, driving in Rwanda is safe and enjoyable. Since the country is so small and there is so much to see outside of the capital of Kigali, I would strong recommend road tripping through Rwanda if you’re interested in really experiencing the local life and culture there. Just make sure you rent a larger vehicle through a reputable car rental company like Self Drive Rwanda, and take our guide to everything you need to know about road tripping Rwanda with Self Drive Rwanda with you on your trip. Most of all, enjoy your African massage and remember to have fun!
Looking for somewhere to stay in Kigali? Here’s why we think the Radisson Blu is the best hotel in Kigali.
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A big thank you to Self Drive Rwanda for making our trip possible. As always, all opinions are 100% our own.